Learning music from Ableton

Ableton recently launched a delightful web site that teaches the basics of beatmaking, production and music theory using elegant interactives. If you’re interested in music education, creation, or user experience design, you owe it to yourself to try it out.

Ableton - Learning Music site

One of the site’s co-creators is Dennis DeSantis, who wrote Live’s unusually lucid documentation, and also their first book, a highly-recommended collection of strategies for music creation (not just in the electronic idiom.)

Dennis DeSantis - Making Music

The other co-creator is Jack Schaedler, who also created this totally gorgeous interactive digital signal theory primer.

If you’ve been following the work of the NYU Music Experience Design Lab, you might notice some strong similarities between Ableton’s site and our tools. That’s no coincidence. Dennis and I have been having an informal back and forth on the role of technology in music education for a few years now. It’s a relationship that’s going to get a step more formal this fall at the 2017 Loop Conference – more details on that as it develops.

Meanwhile, Peter Kirn’s review of the Learning Music site raises some probing questions about why Ableton might be getting involved in education in the first place. But first, he makes some broad statements about the state of the musical world that are worth repeating in full.

I think there’s a common myth that music production tools somehow take away from the need to understand music theory. I’d say exactly the opposite: they’re more demanding.

Every musician is now in the position of composer. You have an opportunity to arrange new sounds in new ways without any clear frame from the past. You’re now part of a community of listeners who have more access to traditions across geography and essentially from the dawn of time. In other words, there’s almost no choice too obvious.

The music education world has been slow to react to these new realities. We still think of composition as an elite and esoteric skill, one reserved only for small class of highly trained specialists. Before computers, this was a reasonable enough attitude to have, because it was mostly true. Not many of us can learn an instrument well enough to compose with it, then learn to notate our ideas. Even fewer of us will be able to find musicians to perform those compositions. But anyone with an iPhone and twenty dollars worth of apps can make original music using an infinite variety of sounds, and share that music online to anyone willing to listen. My kids started playing with iOS music apps when they were one year old. With the technical barriers to musical creativity falling away, the remaining challenge is gaining an understanding of music itself, how it works, why some things sound good and others don’t. This is the challenge that we as music educators are suddenly free to take up.

There’s an important question to ask here, though: why Ableton?

To me, the answer to this is self-evident. Ableton has been in the music education business since its founding. Like Adam Bell says, every piece of music creation software is a de facto education experience. Designers of DAWs might even be the most culturally impactful music educators of our time. Most popular music is made by self-taught producers, and a lot of that self-teaching consists of exploring DAWs like Ableton Live. The presets, factory sounds and affordances of your DAW powerfully inform your understanding of musical possibility. If DAW makers are going to be teaching the world’s producers, I’d prefer if they do it intentionally.

So far, there has been a divide between “serious” music making tools like Ableton Live and the toy-like iOS and web apps that my kids use. If you’re sufficiently motivated, you can integrate them all together, but it takes some skill. One of the most interesting features of Ableton’s web site, then, is that each interactive tool includes a link that will open up your little creation in a Live session. Peter Kirn shares my excitement about this feature.

There are plenty of interactive learning examples online, but I think that “export” feature – the ability to integrate with serious desktop features – represents a kind of breakthrough.

Ableton Live is a superb creation tool, but I’ve been hesitant to recommend it to beginner producers. The web site could change my mind about that.

So, this is all wonderful. But Kirn points out a dark side.

The richness of music knowledge is something we’ve received because of healthy music communities and music institutions, because of a network of overlapping ecosystems. And it’s important that many of these are independent. I think it’s great that software companies are getting into the action, and I hope they continue to do so. In fact, I think that’s one healthy part of the present ecosystem.

It’s the rest of the ecosystem that’s worrying – the one outside individual brands and what they support. Public music education is getting squeezed in different ways all around the world. Independent content production is, too, even in advertising-supported publications like this one, but more so in other spheres. Worse, I think education around music technology hasn’t even begun to be reconciled with traditional music education – in the sense that people with specialties in one field tend not to have any understanding of the other. And right now, we need both – and both are getting their resources squeezed.

This might feel like I’m going on a tangent, but if your DAW has to teach you how harmony works, it’s worth asking the question – did some other part of the system break down?

Yes it did! Sure, you can learn the fundamentals of rhythm, harmony, and form from any of a thousand schools, courses, or books. But there aren’t many places you can go to learn about it in the context of Beyoncé, Daft Punk, or A Tribe Called Quest. Not many educators are hip enough to include the Sleng Teng riddim as one of the fundamentals. I’m doing my best to rectify this imbalance–that’s what my courses with Soundfly classes are for. But I join Peter Kirn in wondering why it’s left to private companies to do this work. Why isn’t school music more culturally relevant? Why do so many educators insist that you kids like the wrong music? Why is it so common to get a music degree without ever writing a song? Why is the chasm between the culture of school music and music generally so wide?

Like Kirn, I’m distressed that school music programs are getting their budgets cut. But there’s a reason that’s happening, and it isn’t that politicians and school boards are philistines. Enrollment in school music is declining in places where the budgets aren’t being cut, and even where schools are offering free instruments. We need to look at the content of school music itself to see why it’s driving kids away. Both the content of school music programs and the people teaching them are whiter than the student population. Even white kids are likely to be alienated from a Eurocentric curriculum that doesn’t reflect America’s increasingly Afrocentric musical culture. The large ensemble model that we imported from European conservatories is incompatible with the riot of polyglot individualism in the kids’ earbuds.

While music therapists have been teaching songwriting for years, it’s rare to find it in school music curricula. Production and beatmaking are even more rare. Not many adults can play oboe in an orchestra, but anyone with a guitar or keyboard or smartphone can write and perform songs. Music performance is a wonderful experience, one I wish were available to everyone, but music creation is on another level of emotional meaning entirely. It’s like the difference between watching basketball on TV and playing it yourself. It’s a way to understand your own innermost experiences and the innermost experiences of others. It changes the way you listen to music, and the way you approach any kind of art for that matter. It’s a tool that anyone should be able to have in their kit. Ableton is doing the music education world an invaluable service; I hope more of us follow their example.

Theory for Producers: the White Keys

I’m pleased to announce the second installment of Theory For Producers, jointly produced by Soundfly and the MusEDLab. The first part discussed the scales you can play on the black keys of the piano. This one talks about three of the scales you get from the white keys. The next segment will deal with four additional white-key scales. Go try it!

Theory for Producers: the White Keys

If you’re a music educator or theory nerd, and would like to read more about the motivation behind the course design, read on.

Some of my colleagues in the music teaching world are puzzled by the order in which we’re presenting concepts. Theory resources almost always start with the C major scale, but we start with E-flat minor pentatonic. While it’s harder to represent in notation, E-flat minor pentatonic is easier to play and learn by ear, and for our target audience, that’s the most important consideration.

Okay, fine, the pentatonics are simple, it makes sense to start with them. But surely we would begin the white key part on the major scale, right? Nope! We start with Mixolydian mode. In electronica, hip-hop, rock, and pop, Mixolydian is more “basic” than major is. The sound of the flat seventh is more native to this music than the leading tone, and V-I cadences are rare or absent. I once had a student complain that the major scale makes everything sound like “Happy Birthday.” Our Mixolydian example, a Michael Jackson tune, was chosen to make our audience of producers feel culturally at home, to make them feel like we value the dance music of the African diaspora over the folk and classical of Western Europe.

After Mixolydian, we discuss Lydian mode. While it’s a pretty exotic scale, we chose to address it before major because it’s more forgiving to improvise with–Lydian doesn’t have any “wrong” notes. In major, you have to be careful about the fourth, because it has strong functional connotations, and because it conflicts hard with the third. In Lydian, you can play notes in any order and any combination without fear of hitting a clunker. Also, exotic though it may be, Lydian does pop up in a few well-known songs, like in a recent Katy Perry hit.

Finally, we do get to major, using David Bowie, and Queen. Even here, though, we downplay functional harmony, treating major as just another mode. Our song example uses a I-IV-V chord progression, but it runs over a static riff bassline, which makes it float rather than resolve.

This class only deals with the three major diatonic modes. We’ll get to the minor ones (natural minor, Dorian, Phrygian and Locrian) in the third class. We debated doing minor first, but there are more of the minor modes, and they’re more complicated.

We also debated whether or not to talk about chords. The chord changes in our examples are minimal, but they’re present. We ultimately decided to stick to horizontal scales only for the time being, and to treat chords separately. We plan to go back through all of the modes and talk about the chord progressions characteristic of each one. For example, with Mixolydian, we’ll talk about I-bVII-IV; with Lydian we’ll do I-II; and with major we’ll do all the permutations of I, IV, V and vi.

Once again, we know it’s unconventional to deal with modes so thoroughly before even touching any chords, but for our audience, we think this approach will make more sense. Electronic music is not big on complex harmony, but it is big on modes.

Inside the aQWERTYon

The MusEDLab and Soundfly just launched Theory For Producers, an interactive music theory course. The centerpiece of the interactive component is a MusEDLab tool called the aQWERTYon. You can try it by clicking the image below.

aQWERTYon screencap

In this post, I’ll talk about why and how we developed the aQWERTYon.

One of our core design principles is to work within our users’ real-world technological limitations. We build tools in the browser so they’ll be platform-independent and accessible anywhere there’s internet access (and where there isn’t internet access, we’ve developed the “MusEDLab in a box.”) We want to find out what musical possibilities there are in a typical computer with no additional software or hardware. That question led us to investigate ways of turning the standard QWERTY keyboard into a beginner-friendly instrument. We were inspired in part by GarageBand’s Musical Typing feature.

GarageBand musical typing

If you don’t have a MIDI controller, Apple thoughtfully made it possible for you to use your computer keyboard to play GarageBand’s many software instruments. You get an octave and a half of piano, plus other useful controls: pitch bend, modulation, sustain, octave shifting and simple velocity control. Many DAWs offer something similar, but Apple’s system is the most sophisticated I’ve seen.

Handy though it is, Musical Typing has some problems as a user interface. The biggest one is the poor fit between the piano keyboard layout and the grid of computer keys. Typing the letter A plays the note C. The rest of that row is the white keys, and the one above it is the black keys. You can play the chromatic scale by alternating A row, Q row, A row, Q row. That basic pattern is easy enough to figure out. However, you quickly get into trouble, because there’s no black key between E and F. The QWERTY keyboard gives no visual reminder of that fact, so you just have to remember it. Unfortunately, the “missing” black key happens to be the letter R, which is GarageBand’s keyboard shortcut for recording. So what inevitably happens is that you’re hunting for E-flat or F-sharp and you accidentally start recording over whatever you were doing. I’ve been using the program for years and still do this routinely.

Rather than recreating the piano keyboard on the computer, we drew on a different metaphor: the accordion.

The accordion: the user interface metaphor of the future!

We wanted to have chords and scales arranged in an easily discoverable way, like the way you can easily figure out the chord buttons on the accordion’s left hand. The QWERTY keyboard is really a staggered grid four keys tall and between ten and thirteen keys wide, plus assorted modifier and function keys. We decided to use the columns for chords and the rows for scales.

For the diatonic scales and modes, the layout is simple. The bottom row gives the notes in the scale starting on 1^. The second row has the same scale shifted over to start on 3^. The third row starts the scale on 5^, and the top row starts on 1^ an octave up. If this sounds confusing when you read it, try playing it, your ears will immediately pick up the pattern. Notes in the same column form the diatonic chords, with their roman numerals conveniently matching the number keys. There are no wrong notes, so even just mashing keys at random will sound at least okay. Typing your name usually sounds pretty cool, and picking out melodies is a piece of cake. Playing diagonal columns, like Z-S-E-4, gives you chords voiced in fourths. The same layout approach works great for any seven-note scale: all of the diatonic modes, plus the modes of harmonic and melodic minor.

Pentatonics work pretty much the same way as seven-note scales, except that the columns stack in fourths rather than fifths. The octatonic and diminished scales lay out easily as well. The real layout challenge lay in one strange but crucial exception: the blues scale. Unlike other scales, you can’t just stagger the blues scale pitches in thirds to get meaningful chords. The melodic and harmonic components of blues are more or less unrelated to each other. Our original idea was to put the blues scale on the bottom row of keys, and then use the others to spell out satisfying chords on top. That made it extremely awkward to play melodies, however, since the keys don’t form an intelligible pattern of intervals. Our compromise was to create two different blues modes: one with the chords, for harmony exploration, and one just repeating the blues scale in octaves for melodic purposes. Maybe a better solution exists, but we haven’t figured it out yet.

When you select a different root, all the pitches in the chords and scales are automatically changed as well. Even if the aQWERTYon had no other features or interactivity, this would still make it an invaluable music theory tool. But root selection raises a bigger question: what do you do about all the real-world music that uses more than one scale or mode? Totally uniform modality is unusual, even in simple pop songs. You can access notes outside the currently selected scale by pressing the shift keys, which transposes the entire keyboard up or down a half step. But what would be really great is if we could get the scale settings to change dynamically. Wouldn’t it be great if you were listening to a jazz tune, and the scale was always set to match whatever chord was going by at that moment? You could blow over complex changes effortlessly. We’ve discussed manually placing markers in YouTube videos that tell the aQWERTYon when to change its settings, but that would be labor-intensive. We’re hoping to discover an algorithmic method for placing markers automatically.

The other big design challenge we face is how to present all the different scale choices in a way that doesn’t overwhelm our core audience of non-expert users. One solution would just be to limit the scale choices. We already do that in the Soundfly course, in effect; when you land on a lesson, the embedded aQWERTYon is preset to the appropriate scale and key, and the user doesn’t even see the menus. But we’d like people to be able to explore the rich sonic diversity of the various scales without confronting them with technical Greek terms like “Lydian dominant”. Right now, the scales are categorized as Major, Minor and Other, but those terms aren’t meaningful to beginners. We’ve been discussing how we could organize the scales by mood or feeling, maybe from “brightest” to “darkest.” But how do you assign a mood to a scale? Do we just do it arbitrarily ourselves? Crowdsource mood tags? Find some objective sorting method that maps onto most listeners’ subjective associations? Some combination of the above? It’s an active area of research for us.

This issue of categorizing scales by mood has relevance for the original use case we imagined for the aQWERTYon: teaching film scoring. The idea behind the integrated video window was that you would load a video clip, set a mode, and then improvise some music that fit the emotional vibe of that clip. The idea of playing along with YouTube videos of songs came later. One could teach more general open-ended composition with the aQWERTYon, and in fact our friend Matt McLean is doing exactly that. But we’re attracted to film scoring as a gateway because it’s a more narrowly defined problem. Instead of just “write some music”, the challenge is “write some music with a particular feeling to it that fits into a scene of a particular length.

Would you like to help us test and improve the aQWERTYon, or to design curricula around it? Would you like to help fund our programmers and designers? Please get in touch.

Theory for Producers

I’m delighted to announce the launch of a new interactive online music course called Theory for Producers: The Black Keys. It’s a joint effort by Soundfly and the NYU MusEDLab, representing the culmination of several years worth of design and programming. We’re super proud of it.

Theory for Producers: The Black Keys

The course makes the abstractions of music theory concrete by presenting them in the form of actual songs you’re likely to already know. You can play and improvise along with the examples right in the web browser using the aQWERTYon, which turns your computer keyboard into an easily playable instrument. You can also bring the examples into programs like Ableton Live or Logic for further hands-on experimentation. We’ve spiced up the content with videos and animations, along with some entertaining digressions into the Stone Age and the auditory processing abilities of frogs.

So what does it mean that this is music theory for producers? We’re organizing the material in a way that’s easiest and most relevant to people using computers to create the dance music of the African diaspora: techno, hip-hop, and their various pop derivatives. This music carries most of its creative content outside of harmony: in rhythm, timbre, and repetitive structure. The harmony is usually static, sitting on a loop of a few chords or just a single mode. Alongside the standard (Western) major and minor scales, you’re just as likely to encounter more “exotic” (non-Western) sounds.

Music theory classes and textbooks typically begin with the C major scale, because it’s the easiest scale to represent and read in music notation. However, C major is not necessarily the most “basic” or fundamental scale for our intended audience. Instead, we start with E-flat minor pentatonic, otherwise known as the black keys on the piano. The piano metaphor is ubiquitous both in electronic music hardware and software, and pentatonics are even easier to play on piano than diatonic scales. E-flat minor pentatonic is more daunting in notated form than C major, but since dance and hip-hop producers tend not to be able to read music anyway, that’s no obstacle. And if producers want to use keys other than E-flat minor (or G-flat major), they can keep playing the black keys and then transpose the MIDI later.

The Black Keys is just the first installment in Theory For Producers. Next, we’ll do The White Keys, otherwise known as the modes of C major. We’re planning to start that course not with C major itself, but with G Mixolydian mode, because it’s a more familiar sound in Afrodiasporic music than straight major. After that, we’ll do a course about chords, and one about rhythm. We hope you sign up!

Update: oh hey, we’re on Lifehacker